Proving that Peter Hessler hasn’t completely cornered the market on ‘North American reporter writing memoir-ish books about China’, former China Daily editor Mitch Moxley’s Apologies to My Censor: The High and Low Adventures of a Foreigner in China was released this summer*. We spoke to Mitch via email from his new home in New York about state media and being a reporter in China.
Shanghaiist: How long were you at the China Daily?
Mitch Moxley: I worked at China Daily from April 2007 to April 2008. It was an interesting time to be at paper. Management had been recruiting a growing team of “foreign experts” to Beijing from all over the English-speaking world. There were thirty or more foreigners working at the paper by the time I arrived. It was an eclectic group and we were arriving in China at an exciting time – the lead up to the 2008 Olympics. Some of us foreigners, myself included, were hired to work as reporters, which was something new at the paper.
SHist: To what extent was there a sense of censorship or control as a reporter working for state media?
MM: Most of the censorship at China Daily was self-imposed: reporters and editors simply knew what they could and couldn’t cover and nobody tried to push those boundaries (not that they could, really). More sensitive topics – Tiananmen, Tibet, Taiwan – were off limits or would only be covered very delicately and would have to be approved by some higher-up. Sometimes stories I reported would be heavily edited to remove anything remotely sensitive, and sometimes they didn’t go to print at all. When that happened nobody really told me why, and I learned pretty quickly that asking questions went nowhere.
SHist: Would you recommend that people looking for an entry into journalism consider Chinese state media?
MM: I would definitely recommend it. Even though working at China Daily was a constant challenge and frustrating at times, it was an incredibly valuable experience for me. Everyday I was learning about China from a very unique perspective. Many foreign journalists in China cut their teeth in state media and I have no regrets about taking the job. I wouldn’t have come to China otherwise. It may not be journalism in the Western sense, but it’s a great introduction to Chinese media and a good pathway to other journalism opportunities.
SHist: What was the weirdest story you covered (or weren’t allowed to cover) during your time at the China Daily?
MM: For one of my first assignments I was sent to Beijing’s Silk Market to interview foreigners shopping there. We had just run a story about how the Silk Market had eliminated all knock-off goods, and I was tasked to find out what foreigners thought about it. When I arrived I found the place stocked floor to ceiling with fake stuff – in fact that’s exactly what the shoppers I interviewed were looking for: cheap crap. When I went and told my editor what I’d found, he said that the government had really cracked down on counterfeit goods, so I wouldn’t be allowed to write what I saw. In other words, I couldn’t tell the truth. Instead, I was allowed to write that foreigners enjoyed the Silk Market’s “low-costs goods.”
SHist: How do you see the state of the media in China today? Is there more or less censorship? Are you positive about the direction things are going in?
MM: Even if the breadth of subjects Chinese media can cover grows, there will always be censorship as long as the state retains some control of the media. But I think the emergence of Southern Weekend is encouraging. And the rise of social media in China means that news can travel so fast that media censorship becomes increasingly futile. When a story breaks, people will know about it one way or another.
Buy Apologies to My Censor from Amazon, follow Mitch on Twitter.
[*A note to prospective China memoirists: Yes, Mitch sold his memoir to Harper Perennial. No, this does not mean your stories about being a foreigner in China are necessarily publishable.]
[Image via Facebook]